In his second blog about CAFOD’s humanitarian work over the last fifty years, Mike Noyes remembers the drought of 1973.
The drought that affected East Africa and the Sahel region (the stretch of Africa just south of the Sahara desert) in 1973 was one of the worst in recent memory. When I was working in Africa in the late 1980s, people used to talk about this drought as being the one that caused permanent environmental damage: whole forests died, and wildlife was wiped out.
The impact of the drought was particularly serious in Ethiopia, because it coincided with a civil war. Affecting mostly the north-eastern part of the country, the drought was said at the time to have led to the deaths of some 200,000 people, although current estimates put the figure at about half that number.
Attempts by the ruling regime of Haile Selassie to cover up the extent of the disaster, and a domestic economic slump resulting from the 1973 oil crisis, increased discontent amongst the politically organised groups in the army, and led to a coup which brought the communist-backed Derg regime to power.
This regime in turn was to collapse in 1987 following another major drought and famine in Ethiopia in 1983-84, where once again the government tried to hide the true impact of the suffering of its people.
Back in 1973, we launched a special appeal for Ethiopia and raised £30,000 – worth about ten times as much in today’s terms.
There was also an appeal by the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC) and we received further support from that. Our funding covered the purchase of food, vehicles for distributing relief, building a home for abandoned children and medicines.
Our membership of the DEC has been a vital part of the way we’ve responded to emergencies over the last 50 years. Through the DEC, which now includes 15 of the UK’s main aid agencies, we are able to reach out to the wider public for support at the time of major emergencies, bringing in a large contribution to add to our own fundraising. Typically, around a third of the appeal funding we receive for major disasters comes from the money raised directly by the DEC.
Another important part of our humanitarian work has been the way we’ve worked with and challenged the UK government in how it responds to emergencies. In 1973, CAFOD’s Administrator Noel Charles met the then newly appointed Minister for Overseas Development, Judith Hart, to push for increased government support for food and logistics – an early example of CAFOD lobbying politicians to do more during an emergency.
This year, with more than 860 million people facing chronic food shortages, our Hungry for Change campaign is asking the British government to do more to fix the world’s broken food system.
Also this year, we’ve responded to a new food emergency in the Sahel region. Our approach to responding to droughts and famines has changed a bit since 1973. We’re less likely just to hand out food these days, and more likely to give small cash transfers or fund cash-for-work projects, so that people can buy food at the local market if it’s available. We’re also better at seeking long-term solutions to food shortages: building village granaries, improving water supplies, ensuring pastoralists can keep their animals alive so that they don’t lose all their assets.
To find out more about our current approach to food crises, read about how we’ve responded to the West Africa Crisis.
Read Mike’s blog about the Biafra crisis, 1968